Friday, April 11th, the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy hosted the Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno.

Watch the full conversation here.


A U.S. Army Officer attending Duke University through the Fellowship Program asks U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno a question during a moderated discussion with Director of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, Peter Feaver, at Duke, Apr. 11, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Steve Cortez/ Released)(from Ray Odierno's Facebook page)

General Odierno: “This is the Most Uncertain Security Environment I’ve Ever Been Involved With”

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary, on MAY 1, 2014:
US Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno  — who played a strategic role in the Iraq war — was invited to speak publicly last month with Duke University public policy and political science professor Peter Feaver about that experience, and national security concerns and military affairs more broadly.Yesterday thousands of Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new national parliament in the first such elections since US troops pulled out of the country completely in late 2011, and against a backdrop heightened sectarian tensions and worsening violence.

“Gen. Odierno has served in demanding assignments before — he was the ground commander for the Iraq surge — but he has never had a portfolio as daunting as his current one: helping the U.S. Army recover from the strain of a dozen-plus years of high-tempo conflict, and adjust to the rapidly shifting geostrategic environment,” said Feaver ahead of the April 11 talk.

Part of the Duke Alumni Reunion Weekend programs and sponsored by the Dave and Kay Phillips Family, the recorded talk was hosted by the American Grand Strategy Program (of which Feaver is director) at the Sanford School of Public Policy, and was attended by Sanford School alumni including military veterans; several students; and at least one diplomat.

In addition to Iraq, Odierno and Feaver touched on emerging regional Sunni/Shia conflicts; “moderate vs. extremist Islam;” the Middle East awakening; national security challenges in Yemen, Pakistan, parts of Africa, and N. Korea; developments between Russia and Ukraine; and the importance of maintaining relationships and staying engaged in Asia.

Warned Odierno: “My overall concern is, I tell everyone this, in the 38 years that I’ve been in the Army, this is the most uncertain security environment I’ve ever been involved with.”

The two also discussed budget battles; the much-debated “regional alignment” initiative; the civil-military gap, and the Army’s education strategy. (While not covered in this ISLAMiCommentary article, they also spent time discussing the mental health crisis in the military, as well as sexual assault: Watch here)

The Surge

Having served initially as 4th Infantry Division commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Odierno returned to Iraq at the end of 2006 as operational commander of the Multi-National Corps – Iraq. That period, he said, was the height of sectarian violence in the country, and thus “a real strategic decision point”: “Do we cut and leave? Or do we stay and complete the job?”

Odierno said he was convinced, based on conversations with subordinate commanders and his study of the six months prior, that with additional forces “we could quell the violence over time.”

“And I thought it was key, if we didn’t do that then we would never build the space and time for the rest of Iraq to come forward, and the government to form, so they could have some kind of a level of democratic process.”

He made a recommendation, against the prevailing viewpoint in Washington, to bring in additional forces rather than reduce; leading with General David Petraeus what became known as “the surge.”

This also involved a shift from between 10 and 20 large forward operating bases to more than 300 smaller bases spread throughout Baghdad and in villages; a strategy, he explained, that resulted in “building confidence in the population that we would be there for them.”

“When we were living out there we actually got to understand what was going on, you were able to impact, and I would argue that it ended up being safer for our soldiers to be out there. It’s counter intuitive but…that’s what I believe. So we executed the strategy,” he said. “David Petraeus came in (February 2007) as the (Multi-National Force – Iraq) commander … He had a huge job, his responsibility was taking care of ‘up.’ He was the one who had to deal with Congress and other people to convince them that this thing was the right thing to do… My job was to work ‘down’ and execute the operation. And this work we did together worked very well.”

Odierno continued: “In the beginning it was tough because our casualties increased because we were more involved and we were starting to doubt it, but we knew we were starting to see changes and the change was the population was coming to us. They were gaining confidence. They were giving us information. We were starting to see groups starting to reconcile… They wanted to become part of the solution not part of the problem… But then over about 6 months we started to see a significant change in the violence levels. We started to see it come down. All during this time the Iraq security forces were working by our side and because of that they were starting to improve … we were able then to bring the violence down.”

In the Fall of 2008, under President George W. Bush, the US signed a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the government of Iraq for US combat forces to stay until the end of 2011.

“Working our way through that was one of the most significant, civil, military, political (things) I had to work on as a senior leader,” said Odierno.

He said that when he left in 2010 (Odierno was Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq from 2008-2010), “the violence levels were incredibly low; three or four incidents a day as compared to 400,500,600 a day when we had started.”

“What we had done is to build the time and space  for the government … to try and move forward so I thought that was important.”

There was no further security agreement signed to extend the 2011 deadline and keep some US forces on the ground; owing in part, Odierno explained, to difficulties with coming to an agreement on the protection of US soldiers.

“The difficult part of it is, all of these countries, they want to exercise their own sovereignty like we do. We want to have our own sovereignty and they want to be able to make decisions, and that’s where you struggle with this and struggle with them.”

Odierno opened up about lessons learned with Iraq.

“One of my great lessons learned as I went in… in the initial invasion of Iraq, was a complete misunderstanding of the societal devastation that occurred in Iraq prior to us going in. We knew we could topple a government. We did that very quickly. We did it in three weeks. We were able to defeat their army, topple it, that’s what we do. We know how to do that. What we didn’t understand was the impact of 20 years of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and the time from the first Gulf War and (the affect) it had on the population, and this internal conflict that was occuring in the population. We had no understanding of that. So when we decapitated the government, all these problems surfaced. We weren’t prepared to deal with these problems. It took us about three years to get our bearings. We don’t want that to happen again.”

When asked by a U.S. Army Officer, attending Duke University through the Fellowship Program, what strategic lessons the US and the Army should be taking away from the last 13 years of conflict, Odierno responded, “We have to set clear objectives of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“I could sit here and tell you that militarily in both Iraq and Afghanistan we accomplished everything we were asked to do. But did we accomplish our goals? I think we actually still will in Afghanistan. We still have a chance in Iraq, but right now it’s not looking so good. So I think it’s important to make sure we understand what are the strategic objectives we’re trying to achieve, and define very clearly and make decisions on it and hold to those objectives and think through the problems that you might have to think about. I think that’s probably the biggest lesson learned.”

The Next Ground War

With the pull-out from Iraq two-and-a-half years ago, the mission in Afghanistan winding down, and the budget being cut, the US army is in the process of evaluating its mission going forward, and its preparedness for the next ground war.

“America has a sorry history of drawing down too fast or too much after a war and then being surprised,” said Feaver to Odierno. “And as Secretary Gates puts it we also have a perfect record of not predicting the next war that we are going to fight, but it’s your job to prevent that from happening, or to make sure the next president, when he needs an army, will have any army that he needs. So how are you thinking through that puzzle at a time when fiscal pressure seems to be as great as it’s ever been? How are you solving that puzzle?”

Answered Odierno: “I’m not sure that we’re solving that puzzle right now but we’re trying to work through and make people aware of the risks. This is about risk. It always comes down to the amount of risk you are willing to take… Whatever the size of the army is, it’s going to be ready and modern. So when we ask it to go somewhere they will be capable of accomplishing the mission. That’s our number one priority. Because we owe it to the men and women who serve and that’s what America expects.”

He argued that it’s unlikely there will never be another ground war: “What we fight is this concept that we’ll never fight another ground war.” He cited a number of historical examples of declarations that America will never fight another ground war.

“I’ve been in the army since 1970. We fought a ground war in every decade that I’ve been in the army. So when people tell me, that’s nice to say, and I hope that’s true actually. I would tell you I hope they’re right. But history tells me they’re not. And so it’s my responsibility to make sure everybody understands that, and that we have the capability and capacity to meet whatever requirement that we have that’s in our national interest.”

Odierno added that these days there’s “a lot less tolerance for a mistake and if we’re not prepared then that’s on us and we have to make sure that we are absolutely sure and we understand the risk. I spend a lot of time talking about the risk to our nation and our security when it comes to (using) ground forces.”

One of his biggest concerns is the budget needed to secure the capability and capacity of these forces.

Replied Odierno in response to a question by Duke’s Odierno fellow about what keeps him up at night: “What keeps me up at night? There’s a lot of things that keep me up at night. So let me give it to you from a military perspective. So what keeps me up at night as the Chief of Staff of the Army is what we’ve been going through with the budget. If tomorrow I’m asked to deploy 100,000 soldiers, that they would not be ready … The burden of those decisions fall on the shoulders of our soldiers, if they are not properly trained and equipped to accomplish the mission we ask them to do.”

Also keeping him up at night — the Middle East.

• “I’ll start in the Middle East. What are we seeing in the Middle East? We are seeing two things play out right now that concern me. We had this awakening…As has been the case in history, whenever you try to suddenly change to a different form of government (such as to a democracy) it takes a long time to do that. It took a long time for our country to move toward a democracy. And so there’s a lot of upheaval and violence and other things that occur based on that.”
• “There’s a Sunni/Shia conflict that is occurring across the Middle East. You are seeing it play out in Syria. You’re seeing it play out in Lebanon. You’re seeing it play out in Iraq. You’re seeing it play out in Bahrain. You’re seeing it play out in other places. And I worry that that could divide the Middle East and cause some significant level of conflict in the future.”
• “I worry about the struggle between moderate and extremist Islam that we’re seeing play out right now across the Middle East in Syria, in Iraq, in Egypt, and that fight is something we have to watch very carefully. Extremist elements could be very dangerous to the security of our nation.”

While the Army is planning, as it comes out of Afghanistan, “to set a standard capacity and capability in the CENTCOM area in the Middle East,” it is also working to build structure and capacity in the Pacific.

Eight out of the 10 largest armies in the world are in the Pacific, Odierno pointed out, and more attention should be given to building relationships in Asia.

“In order to prevent conflict, you have to engage, you have to build partnerships, the capacity to understand each other,” he said. “Commander Locklear (U.S. Pacific Command) would tell me that in the last 10 years we’ve had an absence of that in the Pacific because the army’s been totally focused in Iraq and Afghanistan. So he is trying to rebuild those relationships.”

Asia pivot (?) or not — he couldn’t be drawn by Feaver — Odierno said he’s spent much of his time over the last year-and-a-half visiting his counterparts in Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Korea, China, Australia, Singapore, India, and South Korea, and “these are important countries”

There are 80,000 soldiers assigned to Pacific Command who are kept busy; whether a joint airborne operation with Thailand Army, a humanitarian assistance excursive with the Chinese in Hawaii, or a humanitarian assistance mission such as when Typhoon Haiyan struck The Philippines in 2013.

“We do joint excercises with many other countries in the area and again that’s about building confidence… building relationships… with other nations so you build a trust between each other. So when you need each other that trust, that familiarity is built, so we can depend on each other,” Odierno said. “The army has an important role. There’s a lot of ocean, and there’s obviously a need for air and sea capability, but there’s also a significant need for ground (capability).”

The US has 28,000 soldiers on the ground in the Korean peninsula, Odierno reminded, adding that he “worries about the Korean peninsula” which has a “very young” and “very concerning, unstable leader” in North Korea “who’s trying to establish himself…and nobody’s quite sure what he’s thinking, what he will do.”

“Our goal is to ensure that we do not have a miscalculation that drives the Asia Pacific region into war. And our presence there (in the Asia Pacific region) is very important.”

Odierno also stressed the importance of working with staunch ally Japan “to make sure we’re able to help them to come to peaceful resolution between them and China” on the disputed islands, and to continue to have collaborative efforts with China “because it is in both of our best interests from an economic standpoint to have an Asia Pacific region that’s free for trade and development.”

“Prevent, Shape and Win”

“We have three missions in the Army, to prevent, shape and win. First is to prevent conflict. You prevent conflict through deterrence… The other piece is you want to try to prevent miscalculation. All our wars start based on miscalculations, by some political leader or multiple political leaders,” Odierno said. “The second thing is shape: we have to have the ability to shape the world, and we have to have the capability to shape decision makers and influencers and other people, so we shape it in the best interests of the United States, our national security interests. And finally we have to have the capability to win, if we have to make that decision — after all else has failed — to use military force.”

What is the Army strategy for “shaping the world” ?

Odierno believes the Army’s regional alignment initiative — giving soldiers regional expertise and possibly basing them in that area for the bulk of their career — in tandem with increased funding for education is key.

“This is an exciting time to be in the Army because we’re operationally committed. But we’re also looking at what have we learned in the past and how are we going to project that to the future in this very complex world, and we need our leadership who has operational experience to lead us to the future,” Odierno said. “This concept of regionally aligned forces is going to be available for our soldiers to travel all over the world and contribute to providing security for this nation.”

According to a Dec. 2013 Army Times article roughly 60,000 soldiers have been tapped to cover five regions (Africa Command, Pacific Command, Central Command, European Command, and Southern Command)  throughout fiscal 2014.

Another 20,000 soldiers, reports the Times, “will be involved in 3,000 unspecified activities, and the U.S. Northern Command will also tap 1,100 soldiers for 180 activities in four countries. The 18th Airborne Corps will maintain its global response posture. That’s 5,640 activities in 162 countries — in one year.”

“One of the continents we’re very worried about is Africa because we worry about places where there’s ungoverned territory. And there’s a lack of, in some places, total government control,” said Odierno, explaining that “where there’s lack of government control, you’ll find non-state actors, terrorists and other elements who try to establish a foothold that can then conduct attacks either regionally or on the United States. “

So last year the Army regionally aligned forces to Africa and conducted more than 90 separate small missions, he said, averaging about 2,000 soldiers over time; “building capacity for other nations.”

“It’s helping to develop counter-terror capability. It’s helping to train armies. It’s helping to do some other things like building some infrastructure that allows them to better prepare themselves.”

These units, he explained, are learning about the problems of Africa and becoming experts on the African continent which is “going to allow us over time to better understand the needs, better build relationships that we’ll be able to sustain over the long term.”

The Army also has a structure aligned to Europe. While the US has pulled a lot of forces out of Europe, he said the Army has aligned forces to NATO “as we continue to build NATO interoperability, which has come to the forefront here as we look at what’s going on over in Ukraine.”

“I am concerned about what could happen in Europe,” said Odierno. “What does it mean, Russia’s move into Crimea. Is that where it stops? Does it continue? What does that mean to the NATO alliance? What does that mean to our Eastern European allies that we have? I hope there’s no miscalculations there.”


Retired US Ambassador David Litt, currently with the Chapel-Hill based research and education focused Institute for Defense and Business asked Odierno about how this regional alignment initiative might play for US universities ?

Odierno argued that especially in a time of military downsizing, it’s more important than ever to invest in leaders and programs that “enable them to have the tools to be able to deal in a very complex world.”

“I believe the greatest advantage our American military has over our adversaries is our leaders,” Odierno said. “(Our army) is the envy of every army around the world, and we want to continue to maintain that edge. I believe if we maintain that edge we will always be able to be successful and accomplish what we ask ourselves to do, and that’s why its important we invest in that.”

He explained that as budgets have gone down in the last two years, the Army has doubled the number of fellowships, and is “in the process of completely reviewing our entire education system.”

This includes a curriculum review in process at the United States Military Academy Westpoint, he said, and a review of the training given to ROTC officers and the Army’s noncommissioned officer corps.

Maintaining that edge also includes bridging the civil-military gap through PhD programs for strategic planners (a program Odierno started two years ago); sending officers for fellowships and/or masters programs at leading US universities including Duke, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Texas and others; and sending them to conduct research with think-tanks including the Brookings Institution.

Odierno said while he’s gotten pushback on the concept of investing more in education from those unwilling to take that kind of risk, he believes “the investment is paid back two-three fold.”

Professor Feaver asked if it wasn’t cheaper to just send these officers to Carlisle (US Army War College) or the National Defense University.

But Odierno spoke of the benefit in interacting with the professors (for example) “who have different thought processes, who have different learning, who have different experiences, who have different views.”

“The reason we are doing this, because the complexity of the social, economic, political, cultural, religious as well as the military aspects of the problems that we face, we have to have people who understand, who can help us to develop courses of action for decisions for our leaders that enable us to make the right decisions; that enable us to be better prepared.”

Plus, he added, and no less important, the scholars get educated on the Army through these programs.

Other ways the Army is bridging the civil-military gap is community outreach activities stateside and interactions with civilian advisors in the field. Odierno used the example of Emma Sky, a British humanitarian aid worker and one-time opponent of the war who the Army employed in Iraq for her deep understanding of the local culture and other political issues.

While they learned from her, he said, she also learned more about them and came to have a more favorable view of the Army than the impression she might have had coming into the position. “She didn’t agree with everything we do but she got to appreciate those who serve.”

“One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is to challenge your own assumptions. What you don’t want to do is be in a closed environment where everybody talks the same and feels the same. You want to be in an open environment that allows you to hear other people’s ideas; other people’s thoughts. That enables you to better make decisions as you get older and in positions of responsibility. So that’s why we are investing so much.”


Read the original ISLAMiCommentary article here.